Friday, April 11, 2014

When Movie Stars Make Movies That Nobody Sees

Posted By on Fri, Apr 11, 2014 at 11:08 AM

kristen wiig hateship loveship liza johnson
Can you think of a comic actor who has capitalized less visibly on a major hit than Kristen Wiig? Since Bridesmaids smashed in 2011, Wiig has appeared in exactly two wide-release movies: as a low-key love interest to Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and as a berserk love interest to Steve Carell in Anchorman 2. Her more substantial roles, meanwhile, have all been in indies: Friends with Kids; her ill-fated pet project Girl Most Likely; the upcoming indie drama The Skeleton Twins; and the just-opened Hateship Loveship, a small drama based on an Alice Munro short story. The rest of her 2015-and-beyond dance card goes on in that vein. In other words, she's doing more or less what she was doing before Bridesmaids (when she happily jumped aboard smallish comedies like MacGruber or The Brothers Solomon), albeit with a stronger emphasis on drama.

Compare this to Melissa McCarthy, who since Bridesmaids has toplined two big wide-release comedy hits, including a reunion with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig—and has another Feig team-up in the pipeline, along with her pet project Tammy (which sounded initially a bit like Wiig's Girl Most Likely, formerly Imogene) getting a big Summer 2014 push from Warner Brothers; even her scene-stealing bit parts were in pretty big movies like The Hangover Part III and Judd Apatow's This is 40. McCarthy's success keeps Wiig's career from being a grim sign of how Hollywood treats its funny ladies, making Wiig's deal look more like a conscious choice. Indeed, rather than craving more audience approval, Wiig seems drawn to homebodies, outcasts, and arrested-development types, and having mined some of these types for comic possibilities she now seems to be reclaiming social awkwardness and miscommunications for sadness.

So while Hateship Loveship features one of her least comedic performances to date, it feels like an easy fit—perhaps even too easy. She plays Johanna, a sheltered woman who has spent most of her life quietly caring for others as a nurse and housekeeper. In the film's opening scene, her elderly charge dies of old age, and Johanna moves to another family in another town, keeping house for Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) and caring for her granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld).

This sounds like the recipe for any number of sickly sweet permutations—except for the part where Alice Munro wrote the source material and is presumably responsible for the movie's unexpected turns involving Sabitha's deadbeat-ish father Ken (Guy Pearce) and troublemaking friend Edith (Sami Gayle). (And it probably isn't what you're thinking based on my lumping those two characters together.) I haven't read Munro's "Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage," but whether the movie's best details come from the story or not, director Liza Johnson brings out little details worthy of short fiction: small gestures like the way Johanna unpacks her shampoo from a plastic bag, or the varying levels of articulation in a note she writes. Johnson made the fine ex-soldier drama Return, and it seems like Wiig actively seeks out talented female filmmakers, more so than most people in her rarified position. Johnson is her third post-Bridesmaids female director and two of her upcoming projects are helmed by women, as well.

Kind of a bummer, then, that the movie positions itself to turn into either a movie about two broken people finding each other, or two broken people destroying each other—that tension between those two options is more interesting than the options themselves. Hateship Loveship jumps ahead in time with surprising assurance, but the short-story format, often such a superior fit for movies when compared to the ungainliness of novels, doesn't make a perfect transition here. Hateship Loveship has a lot of nice details, but in the end feels a little bit like a short story with a bunch of enjoyable deleted scenes edited back in. It works ok as a movie, but not as well as it works as an example of its star's willingness to make movies to which many of her peers wouldn't give a second look.

nicolas cage joe david gordon green
Nicolas Cage has also, in his way, shown such a willingness, especially if you consider that his peers, at least in terms of age, include Johnny Depp and Robert Downey, Jr. (as well as, as noted a few years ago, John Cusack). Cage was the first of those quirky leading men of the 80s to get consistent blockbuster work; he's been a movie star long enough to have come down the other side of the slope, where John Travolta has sled many a time, starring in a bunch of movies that play like mainstream shlock yet barely garnered theatrical releases: Trespress, Seeking Justice, Stolen... tax-shelter movies, both in that their mini-studios seem to crank them out to take advantage of Louisiana filming rebates and overseas pre-sales, and in that Cage owed a shitload of money to the IRS and had to work a lot to pay it off.

So I was surprised to learn, in a BAM Q&A with Joe director David Gordon Green, that Cage, who stars in this very good semigothic Southern drama, had not worked in a year when he jumped aboard Green's movie sometime in mid-to-late 2012—even came down early to help Green scout locations for Prince Avalanche, the movie he filmed right before Joe. Timeline-wise, it pretty much makes sense; the three Cage movies that came out in 2011 and the two more that came out in 2012 could have all been completed by mid-2011, and supposedly The Frozen Ground (which came out, barely, in summer 2013) was done by late 2011, too. So maybe Cage wasn't coming off a full year off when he did Joe, but it would have been a substantial break considering that he must have shot half a dozen movies more or less back-to-back.

I parse these details not because I'm a Cage obsessive (though I am) but because Joe, which features Cage's best performance since Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, is so good that it's gotten me hungry for high-quality Nic Cage, although for a while I would have settled for just high-energy Nic Cage; Ghost Rider or Knowing-style Cage, rather than the earnest, downcast straight man of Seeking Justice. But it sounds like Cage may have gone on another bill-paying tear after Joe. The supposedly upcoming Tokarev is yet another thriller shot in the South about yet another reformed criminal getting back yet another taken daughter. Outcast is some kind of nonsense about Cage being a mysterious warrior fighting a Chinese emperor, and it seems like he really did actually go and film a Left Behind movie, set for release in October of this year. His next shot at a real movie seems like The Dying of the Light, which has a schlocky premise (a CIA agent goes to track down his terrorist nemesis) but a notable writer-director in Paul Schrader.

For now, Cage is great in Joe: imposing, anguished, warm, and funny, all at once. Green's directorial looseness fits him, and it's not a surprise to hear from Green that several of his seemingly off-the-cuff moments were, indeed, improvised—not showy weirdness, either, but a kind of heightened naturalism. After a year in the junk-thriller wilderness and a year off, Cage apparently came back to work as good as ever. If he's going to keep doing movies that practically no one sees, I hope he can find the time to work on more movies like this—or at very least, more of the Kristen Wiig type of movies that practically no one sees.

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